Today, we are challenged with feeding more people with no more available land and while mitigating environmental degradation caused by soil erosion and fertilizer pollution of air and water. Roots are the interface between crops and soil, so understanding their biology will help us improve agricultural sustainability. Roots not only anchor plants to soil; they anchor soil to itself, thus preventing erosion. Roots are responsible for plant nutrient and water uptake, so natural variation in root form and function can be used to breed more resilient crops. However, roots are the hidden half of the plant, and observing their form and function is made difficult by their underground life.
The Root Phenomics Laboratory advances root biology by developing new technologies for observing roots and measuring root properties. These technologies constitute phenotyping platforms that allow measurements of hundreds of plants. The laboratory studies root phenes (the basic units of phenotype) and their relation to plant performance, a goal of the emerging field of functional phenomics. By phenotyping hundreds of different genotypes (individuals), we can statistically link root phenes to measures of performance, such as shoot mass, yield or nutrient content. Discovering these linkages allows us to identify which root phenes are important for which processes. Phenotyping produces large datasets, so application of multivariate statistics, including machine learning, is necessary for both confirmation and generation of hypotheses. At the most basic level, the laboratory discovers new root phenes, their mechanisms and how they relate to resource uptake. At the translational level, the laboratory deploys high-throughput phenotyping to map these phenes to genetic regions. Finally, at the applied level, the laboratory works with Noble Research Institute breeders, agronomists and economists to generate new crop varieties with efficient root systems and demonstrate their utility with on-farm trials.